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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Primping and Prepping Artifacts for Exhibit

We will be opening a new temporary exhibit in the Governor’s Gallery of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum on August 25, 2018. The exhibition, titled The Horse in North Dakota, includes about 200 artifacts and specimens from the Museum Division, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection, as well as a few items borrowed from the citizens of North Dakota.

The Museum Division staff is spending many hours of preparation on artifacts selected for the exhibit. Once artifacts are selected, the objects need to be cleaned, their conditions evaluated and reported, and object data sheets created. Each artifact that requires additional physical support must then be fitted on appropriate mannequins or mounts.

Many of the artifacts selected for The Horse in North Dakota include leather. Due to the organic nature of leather and its natural oils, a very common reaction between leather and metals occurs, especially between leather and copper. Copper in contact with leather develops a waxy, flakey, or hairy buildup that needs to be removed. Technically this accreted material is known as fatty acids stained with copper ions, but we affectionately call it “green gunk.” In order to remove the green gunk, it is gently rubbed off using thin wooden dowels, skewers, and cuticle pushers. Additionally, brushes, cotton muslin, and cotton swabs are used for cleaning. It is finished off with a swipe of ethanol.

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a

Before and after photos of the green gunk removal from a metal ring on a saddle (14682.2).  It took Melissa Thompson, Assistant Registrar, nineteen hours of work to clean all of the green gunk off the McClellen saddle.

Spew, or bloom, is a white powdery substance that appears on the surface of leather. Spew is formed when the fatty acids and oils in the leather migrate to the surface and are exposed to air. The powdery substance is easy removed with either a soft bristle brush or a cotton cloth.

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag

Spew being removed from the strap of a saddle bag (09186) using a soft bristle brush.

Many metal objects are polished with a cream or tarnish remover while they are in use. We do not polish any of the metals in our collection for various preservation reasons. Over time, residue from the polish that was once used on the artifact turns white and can hide many of the decorative details of an artifact. Such is the case with these medallions on the sides of a bridle. The green gunk was removed using the wooden tools. Then, using distilled water and small wooden skewers, as much of the white residue was removed as possible to unveil the medallion’s detail.

Before and after of brass tarnish being removed from bridle

Before and after removing brass tarnish residue from bridle (2007.00053.00049)

A condition report, which is a written description and visual record of an artifact’s condition, is completed before the object goes on exhibit. All defects are described, measured, and photographed. We look for fading, cracks, tears, deterioration, missing parts, chips, and any other types of damage depending on the artifact’s material make-up. Once an artifact comes off exhibit, condition reports are completed again to determine whether any changes occurred while it was on exhibit.

Data sheet for toy horse

A Word document produced directly from our museum software database program. Click image for larger view.

Some of the objects selected for The Horse in North Dakota will need to have custom mounts created. These mounts may be soft mounts, which is Coroplast (corrugated plastic) covered in cotton batting and cotton muslin. They could be made out of Plexiglas, or they may be mannequins. Sometimes we make our mannequins from scratch. We use metal rods for the stand, Ethafoam (a closed cell polyethylene material), and either cotton muslin or cotton stockinette.

Making a mannequin for a child's Cowgirl costume

Jenny Yearous, Curator of Collections Management) carving ethafoam into a neck and shoulders with an electric carving knife.  B.  The neck and shoulders covered in stockinette, and the ethafoam waist. C. Finished mannequin with children’s Cowgirl costume (2017.66.11-12).

Come see all of these artifacts and many more in The Horse in North Dakota starting August 25th!  Let us know how many hours you think the collections staff spent getting the artifacts ready for display.

A North Dakota Connection to an American Literary Legend

In processing and organizing collections to make them accessible to researchers, the staff at the State Archives stumbles across unique items with their own stories to tell. While many of these documents and photographs relate to prominent people from North Dakota, or those who spent time or rendered some service to the state, we sometimes find an interesting connection to an important figure in American history in unlikely places.

We recently made one such find. Probate case files are important archival records at the county level that find their way to the State Archives as county governments across North Dakota need to make room for more current records. Older records are sent to us for storage and preservation and are great tools for researchers (especially genealogists) to trace the history of an ancestor’s estate and find other relatives.

In September 2017, Barnes County transferred some of their older probate records to the State Archives. Bev Keesey, one of our volunteers, worked on processing them. One afternoon she stumbled upon Case #599 from 1885 related to Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper, daughter of James Fenimore Cooper, author of the Leatherstocking Series, which includes the novels The Pathfinder and The Last of the Mohicans.

Ms. Cooper’s probate case is an interesting read, as her heirs included her other surviving siblings, most who resided in and around the Cooperstown, New York, area. This begs the question: how did a descendant of one of America’s most influential nineteenth-century authors, with no known connection to our state, come to have a probate case in North Dakota? The likely answer links her to one of the major power players of North Dakota early settlement--the railroad.

Cooper’s probate case concerned, according to several case documents, “An undivided one-half interest in the North West quarter (N.W.1/4) [sic] of Section number Fourteen (14) in Township number One Hundred thirty-nine (139) North of Range Fifty-seven (57) West of the Fifth Principal Meridian, in Barnes County, North Dakota.”1 This land is located southeast of Valley City and, based on the fact that Cooper has “An undivided one-half interest” in said tract of land, suggests that the land was part of the large swaths of land given to the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) during the late nineteenth century along their route through North Dakota. That parcel of land was purchased in the Fargo land office by Anthony Gemmet on October 20, 1882.2

According to the case file, the interest Cooper held was valued at $1,500, which would be worth just over $39,000 today when adjusted for inflation. Further, John Noack, acting as administrator of the estate, was the petitioner to the court on the behalf of Cooper, who was deceased. As the case was probated, the land became Noack’s property, and, according to the Standard Atlas of Barnes County, North Dakota (1910), Noack (spelled Noach in the atlas) owned the entire northern half of the section in question, as well as the eastern half of section 12 in the same township.3

It is fascinating to see how a simple case related to a small piece of land in southeastern North Dakota can link investment, settlement, and the descendants of one of America’s most well-known authors. While I have no indication that Anne Cooper ever visited North Dakota, the connection of her (and by extension, her famous father) to the state is special, given the frontier nature of North Dakota in the late 1800s, North Dakota’s important role in the settlement of the West, and James Fenimore Cooper’s love of the frontier in American history.

Page from the Ann Fenimore Cooper probate case file

Page from the Ann Fenimore Cooper probate case file

View a PDF version of the case file.


1 Anne Charlotte Fenimore Cooper probate case file, Barnes County Probate Case Files, State Historical Society of North Dakota.
2 “Patent Details,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records, accessed June 27, 2018, https://glorecords.blm.gov/details/patent/default.aspx?accession=ND0350_....
3 Standard Atlas of Barnes County, North Dakota, Chicago:  Alden Publishing Co., 1910, 55.